Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 25 January 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21. (correction of church and date made on 19 January 2014)
Have you ever thought about why churches are formed? What brings people together, sometimes knowing that the very act of coming together for worship will cause them to be persecuted? And the persecution of churchgoers is something neither limited to the early Christians or to countries with totalitarian governments today.
Even in America, we find historical examples of religious persecution. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (better known as the Mormons) was driven out of New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before ending up in Utah. And, as one who grew up in Missouri, I am not proud that the Missouri State legislature made it virtually legal to kill a Mormon. The Missouri legal system, during the brief time the Mormons resided in Davies County, Missouri, sanctioned many forms of violence, all born out of hatred and envy. But do not think that it was only the Mormons or the Jews that were persecuted through the history of our country. Now, there is a covert persecution of Sikhs simply because they wear turbans and are confused with Muslims. We persecute Muslims simply because we do not understand the nature of Islam and confuse the actions of those who pervert the message of Mohammed with those faithful to the true meaning of the Quran.
Even Methodism has known persecution. When John Wesley first started the Methodist revival in England, he so angered the Church of England that he and those who joined with him were barred from preaching in regular churches. And when they began preaching in regular homes, a law barring those identified with the Methodist revival from preaching in private homes was passed. But the need of the people to hear the word of God was so great, Methodist preachers moved out into the fields and the countryside to preach. Even then, on-lookers routinely threw stones at the Methodist evangelists. John Wesley even reported that he had been stoned many times as a preacher in those early days of the Methodist revival.
Even in America, this persecution was felt. The oldest Methodist Church is the one down on John Street in New York (where Jason Radmacher, formerly at Grace UMC here in Putnam Valley is now the preacher). In 1768 the congregation that met down there erected a 42 by 60-foot chapel. But New York had a tax-supported state church at that time and the law did not permit congregations of other denominations to build churches. So the Methodists built the new meeting-house with a fireplace and chimney and called it a house. And prior to and during the Revolution, Methodists preachers were viewed was much suspicion, partially in the belief that they still believed in rule by England and partially because of their pacifist views. (Taken from The Heritage of American Methodism by Kenneth Cain Kingdom, pages 28 – 29. Note the material about the legal restrictions placed on Methodists preachers in England is referenced in one of my earlier sermons.)
In view of the persecution that early members of churches felt and in view of the demands placed on people today, why do people come to church? And why are more people going to charismatic or fundamentalist type churches than are going to the more traditional mainline denominations? The answer in both cases is that people are trying to find God; they are trying to find a peace in this world that they cannot find anywhere else.
You may wonder why it is I use the Mormon Church and its history in some of my sermons. Though raised in the EUB, Methodist, and United Methodists churches there have been times when I thought there was a better answer, I thought there somewhere else I could find a better connection to God. Looking at the Mormon Church and its history was one way of finding where I wanted to be. I cannot speak for others, though I suspect it is true, but those who are called the seekers and find their church home in the neo-fundamentalist and charismatic churches of today do so because they feel that is where they are going to find their connection with God. I found in the United Methodist Church the best expression of faith and practice in today’s world. That may not be what others have found or felt.
In Ecclesiastes we read that the Preacher tried practically everything he could think of but he still could not find peace. Most people read the book of Ecclesiastes as the story of a man living apart from God. But, if you look closely at the book, there are many relevant questions, searching questions about the meaning of life. In the end the Preacher writes that there is an utter futility in an existence without God. As a whole, we may be comfortable being in church Sunday morning. We, as a whole, may feel that those who are not here are doing so because they cannot find God. I say they cannot find the presence of God in the worship that takes place.
Finding the presence of God in one’s life is a private thing, but it is shared communally with all others. All the people came together to hear Ezra read the law. For their community, the law was the ultimate authority and the rule by which all life was structured. Rather than being seen as a hindrance, it was regarded as essential to life. The reading of the law is celebrated with great joy and life, for all whom heard the law also understood it. The commentaries for the verses from the Old Testament that we read today all point to the reading of the law by Ezra as a celebration and one that took several hours to complete.
The problem for many churches today is that while there is a reading of the law and the Scriptures, it is done with a routine that has taken the life out of the reading. It is not a celebration but a ritual done without thinking, done solely by rote. The law has lost its meaning.
And for Jesus, the essential nature of the law superseded an adherence to the law. But instead of understanding the law, the people of Jesus’ community simply followed the law, blinded by their narrow ideas about who has the “authority” and the “power”.
No longer is the law of God celebrated; no longer is the law of God seen as liberating. The law of God has become restrictive and the source of oppression. That is why Jesus was rejected in his own community. Those that heard the message and the statement of its fulfillment saw a man threatening to take away their power and their authority; they could not see that Jesus’ statements that day was a fulfillment of the law. (Adapted from “Living the Law” in “The Good News” by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners, January, 2004.)
It is interesting to speak of the law as confining or restrictive; the purpose of the laws we have today is to protect. The speed limit on the Taconic is low for a reason; yet people see it as restrictive and ignore it. They ignore it until it is too late; of course, the penalty is far greater. There are those who say the rules of the Methodist Church are too restrictive; after all, why is the basic handbook of the church called The Discipline? But the rules first set down by Wesley some two hundred and fifty years ago are not meant to restrict and confine; they are meant to define.
Our own organization speaks of the people involved. Methodist polity rests on certain beliefs about church organization:
- Each member is a part of the whole and cannot be separated from the larger community of believers.
- The individual has a responsibility to the denomination, and the denomination has a responsibility to the individual.
- The proper functioning of the church requires faithful leaders and loyal followers.
United Methodist polity assumes that all members share a common commitment to the doctrine and mission of the church. Harmony in the church depends on a common confession that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In addition to the worship of the Holy Trinity, Methodist church polity assumes the willingness of individuals and congregations to set aside complete autonomy and function in mutually accountable ways.
This is the same approach that I think Paul was using. The church is not a collection of individuals all looking and acting alike; it is a true collection of individuals, each of whom contributes to the growth of the church and nurture of its members. Every individual believer has a vital role assigned by God Himself. That is why we should neither boast in what we do or think too little of ourselves. Each one of us is important to God and we have a mission to accomplish here on earth.
Paul also noted that we have been given spiritual gifts for the profit of all, not for our sole benefit. Rather than being envious of other people’s gifts or positions, we should give of ourselves to others. Whenever any part of the body has a need, we should minister and help that part. But we work against that helping nature of the community when we complain about the work of others.
In verse 31 of the passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul may well have been telling the Corinthians that they improperly desired gifts that would bring attention to themselves. The greater gifts would build up the congregation, not the status of individuals. Rather than desire what was improper, they should be looking for a better expression, the expression of love that he (Paul) would write about in Chapter 13.
You will note that I have changed the order of the worship this morning. Actually I changed it last week. I was going to explain why then, but circumstances prevented me from doing so. I have always used a form of worship where the offering came before the sermon, thinking that one should not be distracted from the reading of the Gospel and the explanation of the Gospel by money.
I have always felt that doing this would allow the preacher to open the altar rail following the sermon. You have heard the call, so how will you answer it?
But the outline of the basic service given in our hymnal on page 4 puts the offering after the sermon, as a response to word. If we see the offering as solely a financial thing, then perhaps it is better if we do not even have an offering. Those offerings do not give of our selves. Some may only be able to give financially and we cannot ignore that; but there are other expressions, other ways of responding to the Word and we have to explore those ways. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul pointed out that while there was only one Spirit, there were many ways in which the Spirit could manifest itself. The gifts that we receive and the ways in which we use those gifts are not decided by someone else, but by how we individually react to the presence of the Spirit in our lives. Some may give of their talents and gifts through the proclamation of the Word, others through teaching; still others by working with others.
In the sixties, there was a call to bring power to the people. But too many people saw that as a call to take power. The greed and self-indulgence of the eighties quickly dissipated the egalitarian attitudes of the sixties. The people had the power when Jesus came to the synagogue that day in the Gospel reading; they did not want to give it up. Jesus expressed an idea that liberated the people, but those who heard his words knew that it would also mean that they would lose the power they hoarded and grabbed.
It is the same today. People are looking for a church where they can find God. They are desperately seeking solace in a world of trouble and turmoil. They will not find it in a place where the needs of the people subvert the needs of the community and ignore the demands of Christ. You see the gifts that we have been given, our ability to help others become because we have accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior. We have given up any claims to power so that we could be more powerful. As we celebrate the presence of God in our lives this day and this coming week, I open up the altar rail. I am not quite prepared to put the offering plate on the rail and ask that you bring your gifts to it. But while the offering is being collected, while the music is playing this day, if you want to come and pray, you are welcome. If you have some thoughts that you want to exchange with Jesus, here is the time and the place. Over the next few weeks, I am going to look for more ways that one can express thanks for the gifts that we have been given; I am going to look for more ways that one can find chances to find God in their own lives.
The power of the people is that we can find God and that we, through our word, our deeds, our service can help others to find God. The people called upon Ezra to bring God to them through the law; Jesus brought the fulfillment of the law to the people. We have the chances and opportunities to express that fulfillment even further.